Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Healing the world, healing ourselves

The news is not good.  I don't have to go beyond my Facebook feed to be assaulted by the brokenness of our world.  A local elementary school is on lockdown due to a phoned-in threat, there are polarizing diatribes about the riots in Baltimore due to repeated racial injustices, and the death count continues to rise in Nepal.  In the school I serve (and in all of higher education), students are struggling with increased stress and mental health concerns.  Meanwhile, in our own home, we have a sick little girl, and a boy about to do battle with SOL tests.  I know our problems are small in the greater scheme, but we can't control our worries.

Sometimes it feels like too much.  I'm a highly sensitive feeler, so it's easy for me to take on others' pain as my own.  It makes me an empathetic minister, but also leaves me susceptible to my own struggles with depression and burnout.  My impulse is to turn off the news and bury myself in a cozy cocoon of oblivion.  But I know that retreating is not the answer.  I want to be engaged.  I want to make a difference.

Yet I know that to do this, I must take care of myself first.  I can not help others if I am not coming from a place of health and strength.  I often remind my students that flight attendants on airplanes tell us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.  How can we care for ourselves when things are difficult?  This looks different for everyone, but we all need to eat healthy food, get plenty of rest, and exercise.  We need to engage in activities that renew our spirit, whether that be praying or meditating, spending time alone or with others, or engaging in hobbies.  Sometimes we do need to turn off the news and go for a walk with a friend.  Sometimes the homework can wait, and sometimes we need to be productive so the weight can come off of our shoulders.  Once we are intentional about caring for ourselves, we can look to support the needs of others.

I believe that we are each called to care and serve in different ways.  I watch the news clips of the clergy marching in Baltimore and I want to be that brave.  I have clergy friends that have been arrested for protesting injustice in their own areas of ministry.  I would like to think I would have the courage to stand up and fight, but I fear my trembling legs would give out from beneath me.  I would like to speak passionately and eloquently, but my voice is not that loud and my platform is not that large.  I don't know enough to understand the issues at hand, and so I listen, and maybe that is my gift.

In the past week, I have been asked to support efforts in Nepal, to be involved in local diversity efforts, and to support the work of numerous projects and work of students, colleagues, and charities.  All of these are worthy causes.  And yet my time and resources are finite.  How do we choose?

As a minister, I try to start with prayer.  I know that this can be a way of avoiding responsibility for doing the work (just hoping God will take care of it instead of me doing my part to make the situation better), but sometimes, I need clarity about what I can and can't fix.  Last night, this was my Facebook prayer:

"Sending prayers globally (for Nepal and those who are connected to the disaster there), nationally (for racial unrest and injustice, particularly in Baltimore), for our community of scattered friends (particularly for Jeff and Becca Stables and their family in Jeff's battle with cancer), locally (for my stressed students), and for our household (and our sick girl).  So many hurts and needs that only faith and acting in faith can heal."

So how do we act in faith when it seems overwhelming and hopeless?  I believe that we are all given our concerns, gifts, and passions as a way of connecting with our world.  We can all be the change we want to see in the world when we do our part where we are.  We cannot individually fix all the world's problems, but when we reach out to work on the causes closest to our heart and build community with others who are doing the same, I believe that God empowers us to make a true difference.  

Jane Goodall recently spoke at Hollins, and it was inspiring to hear of her almost 60 years of activism.  NowI don't want to live in the jungle like she did or travel for 300 days a year at 80-years-old like she does.  But she shared advice that can work for all of us.  She talked about how we are told to think globally but act locally.  "But if you think globally, you will only end up depressed!" she retorted.  Instead, she talked about the Roots and Shoots organizations she has started all over the world, empowering young people to be agents of change for the specific issues they face in their own communities.  It was encouraging to hear of the many diverse concerns that are being met through the enthusiasm and gifts of young people.  There can be tremendous power and change when we start with ourselves, work from our heart, and reach out where we are.

I think of my friends who live and minister in Charlotte, building a ministry of hospitality in their own neighborhood through the QC Family Tree.  I see our Nepali students who are organizing fundraisers to help their family and friends back home.  I listen to our students of color who are speaking up to make our community a more welcoming and inclusive place for all.  I reflect upon my ministry, which sometimes takes place at Hollins, and sometimes in my own home.  I remember that my first duty is to see what there is to nurture and change within myself, and always try to act from love.

May we do what we can where with are with what we have.  I will continue praying as I discern how to help and serve, seeking God's grace and strength.  Will you join me?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Easter means this year

The trees are bursting into bloom, but the air still carries a chill. Spring has not yet arrived, although its calendar start date passed by over a week ago.

It's Holy Week and the stores are full of pastel Easter finery and baskets of candy.  It's incongruous.  I haven't felt it as sharply before this year.  As a minister, I've been able to bounce between the hectic pace of worship services remembering the final dark moments of Jesus' life and then return home to celebrate with family over ham and chocolate eggs.  The sadness always held space for the faith of Easter's resurrection.

It's different for me this year.

Within a span of a couple of weeks, my husband and I learned that two people dear to us received terminal cancer diagnoses.  It seems so unfair that two young people full of life, faith, and joy have been struck with such grief; and all who love them bear the pain as well.  We watch helplessly as they walk a journey that, without a miraculous intervention, will end in death.  I am angry and sad, and yet it is not truly about me.  It is not my cross to bear, except to walk the journey with them, to pray, to hope, to support, and to grieve.

I pray for a miracle.  I pray with angry words and tears to a God who I believe hears but remains frustratingly silent.  I try to have faith...I believe!
(Help my unbelief.)

There can be no Easter without Good Friday, though, and sometimes we can only find our way to hope by journeying through what seems hopeless.  The very word "compassion" means "suffering with", and we are with others in their times of pain and grief just as we are with Christ in his suffering and death.  But then we are with him, too, as he is raised to new life.

May it be so.

How many times have I shared my story of the darkest times of my life?  There were times when I wandered through the wilderness, lost, fearing that God had abandoned me.  And yet those were the times that I can look back on as the transitions when my faith was strengthened, when God rescued me as I finally found the faith to let go and trust.

I can only see those times as good in retrospect, after coming through on the other side of the valley of the shadow of death, resurrected.  When I was in the valley I couldn't hope.  I kept walking in the darkness because I knew no other way.  In the same way, we journey through a Holy Week that takes us through betrayal, fear, persecution, abandonment, pain, and cruel death.  But we know that isn't the end of the story.  Though the terrified and confused disciples couldn't foresee it, even though they had been promised it, new life was just a few days away.

 "The life was the light of the world.  
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

Good Friday only becomes "good" when we have seen the light and light of Easter, when we have encountered the risen Christ.  And haven't I experienced that resurrection time and time again?  Why is it so hard to believe?  But this is why we journey through this cycle again and again.  It all comes down to death and resurrection; this is the substance of our faith.

May we believe in the light that overcomes the darkness.  May we trust in the life that is stronger than death.  May we live in the love that casts out all fear.  May we shout in defiance,

"Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."  
(1 Corinthians 15:54-55, 57)

May it be so.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Labor of love

There was a period of years when I obsessively watched pregnancy and childbirth shows like "A Baby Story" and "Deliver Me".  It included the two years it took me to get pregnant (in which each show dramatized my hopes), the 18 months I was pregnant with my two babies (and the shows served to alternately elevate and alleviate my worry about the impending births), and the two years following the birth of my second child (in which I was mourning two traumatic birth experiences, and wading through the fog of postpartum depression).  In the latter case, I think I was seeking redemption as I teared up at the moment of each on-screen birth, imagining a different scenario, empathizing with those whose experiences didn't follow their plan, and always celebrating the miraculous joy of life.

I've written an essay published in the book A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood that shares my organized approach to impending parenthood.  It makes sense considering my type-A personality and the work that went into getting pregnant (schedules, testing, planning, and  minor medical intervention).  I wanted so badly for things to happen, and once they did, I wanted it all to be perfect.  I read all the books, followed all the advice, and felt totally in control.  My husband and I joked about our little "Apex", the baby of perfection that we had created (with God's help...and a little prescription Clomid).  Yet reality has a way of flipping our expectations and showing how little control we truly have.

The day of our son's birth, I was 38 weeks pregnant and heading to a routine doctor's visit with a bit of a stomachache, figuring my lunch was not agreeing with me.  I was measured and weighed, poked and prodded, all to be expected.  My husband and I were just anxious to celebrate with an ice cream date after the doctor, and I had a baby-prep to-do list to attend to.  I was not prepared for the doctor's concerned look and his insistence on measuring me again, followed by an ultrasound, even though I had just had one.  Without much explanation, I was being hooked up for a "non-stress test" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to measure the baby's activity as the doctor suspected that he was not growing as he should be.  After the test, he met us in his office and told us calmly but firmly that we were to go to the hospital directly, "Do not pass go, do not collect $200."  We sighed over missed ice cream, but laughed over parking in the "stork parking" for labor and delivery at the hospital, feeling like we were cheating the system.

We were shown to a room and my vital signs were checked.  It wasn't until they put on my i.d. bracelet that I figured out something was up.  We asked the doctor what was happening, and after another ultrasound she confirmed the other doctor's guess.  My placenta was breaking down prematurely, the baby was smaller than he should be, and I was in the early stages of labor.  Within an hour, we had arranged for someone to care for our dogs, called our parents, and I was prepped for surgery.

It was my first hospitalization, and an emergency c-section was not in my plans, especially as we didn't know what challenges our baby would face.  There were tears, but the doctor was kind and tried to lighten the mood with jokes.  As she wheeled me into the operating room before John was allowed back, music was playing and she said I would have to pay attention to the song that was playing when our son was born so that it could be a special song for him.  With horror, I realized the song that was playing was "Tears in Heaven", the song Eric Clapton wrote about his son who died.  Fortunately, John appeared soon after, and the music was forgotten as we prepared to meet our son.  Brady James was born at 7:07pm with a brief cry that brought tears of relief to my eyes.  They brought him over briefly for us to see, and he looked right into our eyes, silent but intense.  He was then whisked away to be cared for, and John followed, leaving me with the doctor to be stitched up.

After enduring an eternity in the recovery room alone (although John was able to send me pictures of Brady), I was able to return to a room only to learn that Brady was having some struggles and would have to remain in the nursery to receive oxygen and an IV to regulate his blood sugar level.  He was 4 pounds 12.5 ounces and would have to learn to fight like a big guy before he could escape the machines and the hospital.

It was almost six hours before I could briefly see him and hold him for the first time, and he was in the hospital for almost a week.  We knew that we were blessed, especially as I read an article several weeks later about a similar situation that had ended in a stillbirth as the fetus has been without adequate nutrition for too long.  Brady did not suffer any serious or lasting complications.  It was a struggle for him to eat and grow at first due to his size, and he was sick for much of the first year of his life due to a weak immune system.  But he has grown into a healthy, resilient, stubborn, and brilliant boy.  He looks amazingly like he did as a baby, and there are times when he glances at me in just the way he did the first time we laid eyes on one another.

Brady was 18 months old when I discovered that the stomach bug that never went away was actually another pregnancy.  It was so easy the second time around that I was caught by surprise; the Clomid prescription was filled and awaiting my pickup at the pharmacy.  When I asked him if he was ready to be a big brother, he crumpled to the ground in sobs.  Fortunately, by the time I was due, he had come to accept the idea of another baby.  With this pregnancy, I was more carefully monitored, and had the luxury of monthly ultrasounds.  We loved watching the baby grow normally, and were happy to learn on Christmas Eve that Brady would have a sister.  Things were going so smoothly that I discussed my desire for a VBAC (vaginal birth after Cesarean) and my doctor agreed I was a good candidate.

I went into labor at 38 weeks, but it wasn't so bad initially.  When I called the hospital, they gave me the choice of coming in or waiting until the morning.  After finding out the doctor on call was the male doctor that I didn't care for (although he was likely the one who had saved Brady's life by sending us to the hospital), I decided to wait until the morning.

John's dad had already arrived at our house to take care of Brady, and my labor playlist was packed away in my bag.  I got settled in, happy to learn that my nurse was one who had taken care of Brady in the nursery two years earlier.  I watched a little TV, rocked in the rocking chair, and breathed through mild contractions.  It wasn't bad at all...until it was awful.  The contractions started to come more frequently, and they brought sheer panic more than the pain.  My legs would start shaking before I could even feel the cramping, but when it started, I couldn't breathe.  When the doctor checked me, there hadn't been much progress, even after breaking my water (which is just as much fun as it sounds).  To my amazement and frustration, she declared my contractions to be "insufficient".

I was incredulous...she was not feeling what I was, but I guess the monitors told a different story.  Although I had watched Ricki Lake's documentary The Business of Being Born and was armed with the knowledge of how doctors push medications like pitocin and prefer c-sections to save time, when the doctor ordered an epidural "to relax me" and pitocin to make my contractions stronger, I did not argue.  I already felt out of control.

Within minutes, though, the epidural brought a sense of calm, and I enjoyed watching the severity of my unfelt contractions on the monitor much like an entertaining TV show.  But the doctor was watching with an intensity I was not feeling.  She checked and rechecked, leaving the room, and returning minutes later to check again.  She warned me that things were not looking good, and that the baby's heart rate was decelerating with the administration of pitocin.  The nurse suggested stopping the medication, but the doctor argued that I needed the stronger contractions it was creating, and either the baby would have to tolerate it, or I would have to have a c-section.

Fear seized me.  I knew the dangers of a VBAC, and was required to sign multiple waivers stating that I understood the possible risks to me and to the baby, including death.  When the doctor returned for the third time, I saw the fear in her eyes, and suddenly she was jerking cords out of the wall and telling the nurse that I was taking the place of her next scheduled c-section.  She unlocked my bed, and wheeled me through the doorway, running as she pushed me down the hall.  I was slamming into the sides of the hallway, and another doctor passing by laughed and said, "Be careful."  My OB/GYN responded, "There's no time!"  I started sobbing, imagining that I had lost my sweet girl.  I barely caught sight of my husband and my mother, and then it was just the lines of lights in the ceiling, blurred from my tears.  When we reached the operating room, there seemed to be 20 people in there, and the first thing the doctor said was, "Turn off that damn music!"  I didn't have time to think before I saw a mask being placed over my mouth and nose, and I was out...

...I awakened as I was being pushed down a hallway again.  I couldn't tell if it had been minutes or hours.  A nurse saw my open eyes and said, "Your mom sure is worried about you."  In frustration and despair I asked, "How is my baby?"  She looked confused and said, "I don't know."  Again I waited in the recovery room for an eternity, full of grief and fear.  But this time, John sent a video of our girl, Maryn Elana, and just the sound of John talking and laughing on the video assured me that she was okay.

I would later learn that our pediatrician was on call, and when she looked at Maryn, her words were "Now that's a healthy baby" and she left to go check on the babies with more pressing needs.  Our girl weighed in at almost 7 pounds, and when they brought her to me shortly after I returned to my room, the nurses were talking to me about feeding her and how she might not latch on right away.  After struggling with Brady's feeding issues, and making multiple weekly visits to the lactation consultant with him, I expected this.  But I noticed that as they held her out to me, her mouth was open, and even as they were giving instructions, she latched on immediately and began to nurse.  Laughter filled the room and relief filled my heart.

It could have been the beginning of my healing, but that road was longer than I had hoped.  I had much to grieve, and much to learn.  The demands of caring for an infant and a toddler was more than I felt that I could handle most days, and my body was wrecked by yet another surgery.  We were in a state of limbo as John had lost his job and I was burned out from mine.  I kept replaying the trauma in my mind--the scenes out of an "ER" drama without George Clooney and background music.  I felt the anxiety of potentially losing my daughter, and I heard the fear of my doctor who later told me that I gave her an awful scare--she thought my uterus was rupturing and she was losing me.  I heard about John's agony in waiting for news, and also trying to keep my anxious mother calm.  We didn't even have to discuss it to agree that this would be our final delivery.

It was the death of a dream in a way.  It shouldn't matter how our babies came into the world, just that they were ours, and as a great blessing, were healthy and well.  But it did matter to me.  I felt that I had missed out on something; that we had been cheated.  I felt that I had failed at something that should have been natural.  I struggled with guilt that I had put my babies at risk, even though I did all I could have done.  I felt bad feeling bad, as I know so many who struggle to get pregnant, who have lost so many pregnancies through miscarriage, and who have dealt with health complications much more serious than ours.  And yet my grief doesn't understand these rational thoughts...it just feels.

Although I did not experience birth in the "traditional" way I so longed for, over the years I have come to appreciate my delivery through the painful journey of letting go of what I did not have in order to embrace what I do have.  My two beautiful and precocious children remind me every day that I am being purified through the process of becoming the best mother I can be to them, and accepting their place in our lives as the God-given gift that it is.  The road to recovery was about more than the two visible scars that remain, but in surrendering old dreams for new ones.  It is a reminder that we are all broken in our own ways, and yet as Leonard Cohen says in his song “Anthem”, “There’s a crack in everything.  That is how the light gets in.”  I have seen the light of God shining through the broken places, and I have felt the healing presence of God’s love, bringing redemption into our stories through the labor of love.